Anti-Vaccine Stance Not “Religious”; Title VII Discrimination Claim Properly Dismissed

In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvanie, No. 16-3573 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a lower court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s claim for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Specifically, plaintiff hospital worker was terminated after he refused to comply with his employer’s requirement that he receive a flu vaccination. The sole issue before the court was whether plaintiff’s opposition to vaccination is a religious belief under Title VII. The court held that it was not.

Title VII provides that ““[t]he term ‘religion’ includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).

The court adopted the definition of “religion” set forth in its decision in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025 (1981):

First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the
presence of certain formal and external signs.

Here, plaintiff attempted to characterize his anti-vaccination stance as religious by quoting language attributable to the founder of Buddhism, and arguing that “one should not harm their [sic] own body” and asserts that the “flu vaccine may do more harm than good.” He concluded “that if he yielded to coercion and
consented to the hospital mandatory policy, he would violate his conscience as to what is right and what is wrong” and therefore he “must follow his conscience and refuse the influenza vaccine.”

Applying the law, the court held that none of the Africa factors were satisfied:

It does not appear that these beliefs address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, nor are they comprehensive in nature. Generally, he simply worries about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieves the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wishes to avoid this vaccine. In particular, the basis of his refusal of the flu vaccine—his concern that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good—is a medical belief, not a religious one. He then applies one general moral commandment (which might be paraphrased as, “Do not harm your own body”) to come to the conclusion that the flu vaccine is morally wrong. This one moral commandment is an “isolated moral teaching”; by itself, it is not a comprehensive system of beliefs about fundamental or ultimate matters. 23 Thus, we do not believe that either of the first two factors in Africa is met here. Fallon fares no better under the third factor. Fallon’s views are not manifested in formal and external signs, such as “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions.

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